Therapy is Now in Beta

As Lawrence Yu approached, a smiling face appeared on the door, and a cheery voice said, “By placing your palm to the pad, you consent to the recording of all communication both verbal and non-verbal.”

If he refused, the school would call his dad. Lawrence glanced at his watch: 11:15. Dad might still be undergoing pain-relief treatment or else he was trying to sleep through the post-treatment nausea. Lawrence would have to at least go in and pretend to listen to the thing inside.

He consented, and the door opened into a small room where two chairs faced each other. One was empty. The counsel-bot sat in the other, wearing a nondescript, gray tunic. A face as plain as the tunic stared at the ground between the chairs. On its hairless head, a faded, red-ink stamp read BETA UNIT.

The counsel-bot began speaking while raising its head. “Welcome to therapy, Lawrence.” It glanced at a pad in its hand—a choreographed motion to thwart the creep factor of too much eye contact. “You’re nearing the end of your time at East Lansing Middle School, and this is your first offense,” the bot said. “Can you tell me about what happened today?”

The tone was calm, inviting, fake. Principal Andrews insisted that the counsel-bot was under the direct remote control of a human counselor who could juggle multiple middle schools in a day, but none of the students believed that. It was only a bundle of elaborate chat scripting. Being forced to talk to a machine about his problems made Lawrence want to kick the bot off its chair.

Instead, he tightened his grip on his chair’s arms and stared the bot down.

The wan smile on its face relaxed. As it did, a micro-expression created dimples on its chin in the same way his mother’s did.

The bot tapped her pad. “It says here that you poured water on a teachers-aid-bot until it short-circuited.”

He had to say something to meet the minimum engagement threshold. “Accident,” Lawrence said.

“Might have been,” said the bot. “But on Monday you ‘accidentally’ kicked a janitor-bot down the stairs. And on Wednesday, the principal found a hall-monitor-bot in pieces on the steps, two stories below an open window.” The bot drummed her fingers on her leg. “I have limited access to your family records, so I can see that your dad recently lost his employment.”

Lawrence squeezed his thumbs inside his fists until they cracked.

She glanced at his hands. “When an adult loses their job, they often become sad or angry. They may say or do things that—”

Blood rushed to Lawrence’s face, and with it came panic, shock, and rage. “He’s a great dad! But I guess your records don’t tell you that, do they?”

The bot leaned back. “Tell me about him,” she said.

“When my sister turned 15, he took her on a suborbital to Shanghai, where he grew up. They ate soup dumplings and went to the Science and Technology Museum. Does that sound abusive to you?”

“No, it doesn’t. I see that your 15th birthday is next week. Do you have a similar trip planned?”

“My dad…” Lawrence closed his eyes and wished his voice wasn’t so shaky. “My dad was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He’s already missing his mouth with the dinner fork. In a few months, he won’t know who I am. There aren’t any trips to Shanghai in my future.” Lawrence pointed at the bot. “And before you load up a script on grief, I’m pretty sure this is all too complicated for your programming to handle so… we’re done.” He kicked the chair on his way out of the room.